What is Bull Riding?

bull riding

Bull riding is a fan-favorite rodeo event for its promised excitement and danger. In bull riding, athletes, referred to as ‘cowboys,’ attempt to survive eight seconds aboard the top of a bucking bull. To keep balance, the cowboys are allowed only the use of a single hand to grip a braided rope, known as a ‘tail,’ strapped around the chest of the bull. Climbing on the back of a 2,000-pound bull is no small feat, and to be successful, cowboys must be as strong mentally as they are physically. There are few other sports that can compare to bull riding in terms of risk, danger, and excitement.


Bull Riding History

Bull Riding dates back to 16th century Old Mexico where contests of ranchmanship and horsemanship, known as charreadas, were held. Originally the sport was called jaripeo and involved riding a bull to death, but over time, more humane versions of the game sprouted as it spread and evolved. 

The contests made their way to and became popularized in the Southwestern US by the mid-1850s. In 1936, what would become known as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association was founded and bull riding, along with the other rodeo events, became standardized. This led to increased revenue and popularity of the sport. In 1992, bull riders separated from the rest of the rodeo world and founded Professional Bull Riders, Inc (PBR) with its own set of governing rules. Bull riding had long been the most popular rodeo event, and professional bull riders believed that the sport should be able to stand on its own.

Playing Surface

Bull Riding Arena

The venues in which bull riding takes place are called ‘arenas.’ Arenas for bull riding are often just one small part of a much larger rodeo competition or fair. There is no set standard for an arena, and venues vary from place to place. Typically, arenas are a large dirt area enclosed in a strong metal fence. There is a chute on both ends of an arena: a bucking and mounting chute  where the bull enters the arena and an exit chute for the bull.


Bull Riding Equipment

While bull riding may seem like it wouldn’t require much equipment, there are actually quite a few important items a cowboy needs to be ready to climb atop a ton of angry muscle. To be a cowboy means to follow a very specific dress code; the uniforms may be flashy but they double as safety gear! As well as their garb, cowboys must individually provide the equipment needed to mount and ride the bull.

Bull Rope: A braided rope tied around the bull’s front legs with a handle for the rider.

Chaps: Pants as useful as they are flashy. Made out of leather and padding, Chaps provide protection to the legs and thighs.

Gloves: Gloves, made of leather, offer extra grip to hold on to the bull rope as well as protection from burns and tears in the skin.

Cowboy Hats/Helmets: Typically flashy, headgear offers help with balance and protection. Helmets have become popular recently due to their added security.

Cowboy Boots: Cowboy boots specifically designed for bull riding are one of the most crucial pieces of equipment to maintain balance.

Protective Vest: Vests help prevent serious injury to the torso from hoofs and horns of the bull.

Flank Strap: A strap tied around a bull’s flank that encourages it to buck more during competition. Contrary to popular belief, these cause no injury to the animal.


Bull riding is an eight second event of pure intensity, and the riders must last all eight seconds to qualify for a score. The timer starts when the bull’s shoulder crosses the plane of the chute exit. For eight seconds, the bull kicks, bucks, jumps, and cuts trying to get the cowboy off of his back. The ride ends at the end of the eight seconds or if the rider falls, loses grip of the rope, or slaps the bull with their open hand. Both the rider and the bull can receive up to 50 points totaling between 1 and 100 for the final score.

Position Roles and Responsibilities

Bull riding doesn’t have ‘positions’ as many team sports do, but unlike many single-person sports, it does take a team to ensure a safe ride. While not necessarily “positions” in the normal sense of the term, these team members are there to support riders during competition. A flankman is a person who works in the bucking chute, adjusting the flank straps for bulls as needed so the animal correctly bucks while the athlete rides. At the end of a ride, barrelmen or rodeo clowns will come out and distract the bull while bullfighters protect and guide the rider to safety.

Rules and Regulations

Bull riding is one of the simplest sports to understand. The shortness of the event makes it hard to commit a foul or get disqualified unless you don’t finish your ride. This happens when a competitor falls off or touches the bull with their second hand. A standard ride is eight seconds and cowboys often ride multiple times. However, it is a rule that cowboys can only ride one bull per day, so the events are usually multiple days. Spurs and spurring are allowed, not required, but spurs cannot be sharpened.

Referees and Officials

There is not much to referee in bull riding since it is over in a blink of an eye. However there are four judges who can call out riders for breaking the rules. The judges main job, however, is to judge and score the competition. Each judge gets up to 50 per ride to give out: 25 for the rider and 25 for the bull. The scores are added together and divided in half to get the final total score. Judges watch closely at rider ability and how difficult the bull is to ride to reach their verdict. If judges feel that a bull did not perform well enough, they can grant a re-ride.

Lingo and Terminology

There are few key terms you’ll need to know if you’re a new fan or participant of bull riding:

  • Average: Aggregate score for a competitor who competed in multiple round
  • Bullfighter: An athlete who steps in to protect a rider after they dismount or ar bucked off
  • Chute: A pen for holding the animals in position before and after events
  • To Cover: To stay on the bull for the the full time
  • Barrelman: A person who helps distract the bull after a ride or to protect the rider
  • Flankman: Someone working in the bucking chutes who adjusts animals’ flank strap before each ride
  • Left/Right Delivery: The direction that an animal prefers to stand in while within a chute
  • Try: A noun that denotes the traits of grit and determination. It can be used when describing livestock, cowboys, and cowgirls.
  • Roughstock: Bucking bulls that are used in the event
  • Rank: An adjective used to praise especially impressive and difficult roughstock
  • Ropes: The term for a lasso
  • Nodding: The motion a cowboy makes to the gateman to signal them to start the ride.
  • Hung-up: When a rider’s hand is stuck or “hung-up” in the rope or handle attached to the bull. This can be very dangerous especially when the rider has been bucked off.

Skills and Techniques

It takes a great athlete immense physical skill to attempt to stay on a bull for eight seconds. A successful athlete must have balance, agility, and great strength. If you want to become a bull rider, a gym is a great place to start. Technique however, varies from rider to rider, and it can take years of training to complete a ride. Aspiring cowboys often tend to learn from more experienced riders they meet at local venues.

Coaches and Coaching

Unlike most popular sports, professional bull riding does not have coaches that are very present in the public eye or famous. Riders may have coaches and mentors that help them improve their skills and prepare for competition, but there is little need for them during the actual event. Bull riding is a short, individual sport, so the role for a coach is diminished. However, the PBR hosts a rare annual team-format competition that does include the role of team coach. The coaches responsibilities are to fill out the roster and assign each rider a bull.


When it comes to riding a two ton beast for eight seconds, strategy is a difficult thing to talk about in the moment. Much of the strategy comes in the form of preparation, and the best strategy there is for bull riding is to train a lot. Also, while it may seem simple, watch the bull you are riding! That means before and during. It is important to get to know the animal and how it might behave when you are watching it; this can greatly improve how you do. Watching the bull’s head can also let you know which way it may be getting ready to buck! The most basic move to actually stay on a bull is to move towards the front, but, above all else, hold on tight!


Drills are hard to come by in bull riding as many people do not have spare practice bulls to ride and getting bucked off is never fun. However, there are some activities you can do to prepare. First off, you can make sure that you are in great shape, so strength and conditioning drills are very useful. A popular way to drill for actual riding is to simulate fake rides on a stationary ball or a tipped over barrel that is on the ground or rigged up. When doing this, make sure you don’t move more than six inches in any direction, so you are building good habits! You can imagine the ride yourself, but it is very useful to fake a ride-along while watching actual rides if you can find a way to get them on your television.

Players and Athletes

There are many bull riders all over the world. Just like any other sport, some of these riders reach a special status in their sport like Michael Jordan or Lebron James have in the sport of basketball. While the mass public may not know their names, that does not diminish the contributions that they made to their sport. Below is a list of all living riders in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Doug Brown2019
Cody Custer2017
Ted Nunce2009
Jim Sharp2006
Gery Leffew2002
Richard “Tuff” Hedeman 1997
Charles Sampson1996


Bull riding does not have leagues like most professional team sports do. Instead it has organizations that put on events for riders of every level to compete in. Some are only active in certain states or for single events, but the Professional Bull Riders and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the two most lucrative and prestigious organizations, hold events year round across the US.

Professional Rodeo Cowboys AssociationColorado Springs, COPro
Professional Bull RidersPueblo, COPro
Cheyenne Frontier DaysCheyenne, WYPro


Brands that are popular for bull riding may not be brands that you are used to seeing placed next to the word “sports.” You are probably used to seeing things like Nike and Adidas, but they do not offer the right equipment for bull riding. Popular brands include PBR, Wrangler (for the clothing), and Lane Frost, a brand run by the family of the bull riding legends and 1987 PRCA World Bull Riding Championship winner.

Youth Organizations

It can be a difficult decision for anyone to choose to ride a bull. It takes years of hard work, dedication, and a mental toughness that cannot be found in every person. Most people would call you crazy, and you probably are (in a good way!). If somehow your crazy rubbed off on your kid and now they have the inkling to compete, that is no big deal. The rodeo world is accommodating to youth athletes, and younger competitors usually ride miniature bulls. There are plenty of organizations for them to compete within. Check out this list below of some of the best places for youth to compete.


There are plenty of events for someone to attend if they are looking to compete. In the bull riding world, these tournaments or events are called rodeos. Rodeos usually take place over a series of multiple days and can include an entire gamut of events beside bull riding such as barrel racing. Bull riding is the most popular event by far though and cash prizes can be great. The top prize at the PBR World Finals is $1,000,000.

Calgary StampedeCalgary, Alberta, Canada
Pendleton RoundupPendleton, Oregon, United States
EquiBluesSaint-Agrève, France
Dodge City DaysDodge City, Kansas, United States

Books About Bull Riding

While there is some fiction out there like Suzanne William’s Bull Rider, most bull riding books lean towards non-fiction such as a history of or a how-to ordeal. There are many fantastic books out there that will allow the reader to take an in-depth look into a world they may or may not be familiar with. These can be a great resource to get to know even more about the sport. Check out a list of some books about bull riding below:

Professional Bull RidersKeith Ryan Cartwright
Bull Riding Josepha Sherman
Bull RiderSuzanne Williams


There are websites for everything today, and bull riding is no different. There are websites that can offer tips and tricks, websites for equipment, and every organization and event usually has their own website as well. Some things may be a little difficult to find at first since bull riding isn’t as popular as other sports, but with a little digging you can find a website for almost anything. Here’s a few to get you started:


Why are bulls so angry in bull riding?

Just because a bull is bucking does not mean it is necessarily angry. It also does not mean they are in pain contrary to popular myth. It is good to remember that while bulls are domesticated, they are still wild animals. On top of this, bulls intended for the sport have been bred to be more aggressive over generations. Besides the natural reaction of a wild animal to get a rider off of their back, a flank strap is tied around the back of the bull to encourage bucking. While this does work as an irritant to encourage bucking, it causes no physical harm to the bull. 

Why do you get a re-ride in bull riding?

A re-ride is granted to a competitor if the judges feel as if the bull that was ridden did not give the rider a strong enough and difficult enough performance compared to the other rides that day. This is important because half of the total points available per ride are derived from judging the bull and it’s performance during the ride.

How dangerous is bull riding?

There is no way around this, Bull Riding is very dangerous. It is often touted as “the eight most dangerous seconds in sports.” A University of Calgary study shows that 20 out of 100,000 rodeo contestants can expect to suffer from death or a life-altering injury. New helmets and gear help mitigate risk, but bull riding continues to live up to its name as “the eight most dangerous seconds in sports.”

How much money do bull riders make?

Like any sport, the better you do, the more you will make. The sport’s biggest stars can pull six to seven figure incomes, but that is only for a select few. In 2018, the average salary for a typical bull rider was only $65,000. This due to bull riding's competitive nature, time commitment, and the fact that most of the money a person can make comes from prize money, meaning you have to do really well every time to get paid every time. For these reasons, many bull riders continue to hold down their regular jobs while riding bulls for a fun way to make a little extra money.